Ecological responses to climate change may depend on complex patterns of variability in weather and local microclimate that overlay global increases in mean temperature. Here, we show that high-resolution temporal and spatial variability in temperature drives the dynamics of range expansion for an exemplar species, the butterfly Hesperia comma. Using fine-resolution (5 m) models of vegetation surface microclimate, we estimate the thermal suitability of 906 habitat patches at the species' range margin for 27 years. Population and metapopulation models that incorporate this dynamic microclimate surface improve predictions of observed annual changes to population density and patch occupancy dynamics during the species' range expansion from 1982 to 2009. Our findings reveal how fine-scale, short-term environmental variability drives rates and patterns of range expansion through spatially localised, intermittent episodes of expansion and contraction. Incorporating dynamic microclimates can thus improve models of species range shifts at spatial and temporal scales relevant to conservation interventions.